Sunday, November 27, 2022

The official student newspaper of Methodist Ladies' College, est. 2020

Australia’s Recycling Crisis

This article was written by Chloe Taylor on behalf of the Green Team

Australia has relied on exporting our recycling for decades, but a few years ago the implementation of China’s National Sword Policy meant that we could no longer take the easy way out. The policy was announced in July 2017 and it reduced the recycling contamination threshold from 1.5% to 0.5%.[1] Other countries, such as Malaysia, followed suit with similar policies.

For reference, prior to sorting, the contamination rate of Australian kerbside recycling is about 6-10%[2]. Australian recycling facilities struggle to meet the new standards, as they are unable to produce recycling of such high quality. The policy stopped 99% of Australia’s waste exports to China[3]: more than one million tonnes of Australian waste annually.[4]

The international recycling market was flooded so global prices of recycling materials plummeted. The price for mixed paper scrap fell from $124 per tonne to $0 per tonne, while the price for mixed plastics scrap fell from $325 tonne to $75 tonne.[5]

Recycling businesses have been left with stockpiles of recycling, without a market for the materials. Stockpiles pose significant fire and toxic residue risks and are not a long-term solution. SKM Recycling, Victoria’s largest recycling company, had two of its facilities shut down by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in February 2019 for stockpiling.[6] More than 30 councils relied on it as their recycling provider, but it closed down entirely that July and was sold to Cleanaway in October.[7]

Previously, councils received money from recycling businesses for the recyclable materials. This offset the costs of collection by companies such as Cleanaway. However, since the policy, councils have had to pay recycling companies to take the recyclable materials. Visy even started refusing recycling materials from councils. This is because recycling companies’ prospective profits are extremely low (maybe even less than the cost of processing the materials) as global demand for recyclable materials is very low. These increased costs were unaffordable for some councils, who were forced to send their recycling to landfill. This included the City of Port Phillip, Brimbank City Council, Cardinia Shire and the City of Booroondara.[8] Sending materials to landfill is not only expensive as well, it defeats the purpose of having a recycling system at all. Citizens trust in their councils to manage their recycling properly but sending it to landfill is unsustainable.

Some councils, unable to absorb the costs themselves, have passed the increased costs that they face onto citizens. In 2018-2019, waste service charges in Booroondara increased by an average of 14.9%.[9]

The Victorian government invested $37 million into the recycling industry “to develop new markets”, including initial relief so that councils could keep collecting recycling in the short term.[10] The Victorian government’s Sustainability Fund has been identified by councils as a resource that should be used to develop solutions to this crisis.[11]

Port Phillip Mayor Dick Gross says, “we need new technology, new support, new plants — which are already available in America and Europe, but in Victoria we are well behind and we can’t keep putting stuff in landfill.”[12] Proposed pathways for development of the recycling industry include:

  • Funding market development so that there is a demand for the recyclable materials[13]
  • Funding research into improving recycling material quality and uses[14]
  • Giving grants and/or rebates for innovation and design of new uses for the materials
  • Funding the development of recycling facilities to enable continued export and
  • Investing in onshore recycling markets and facilities, creating jobs in the process.

Last month it was announced by the environment minister, Sussan Ley, that the government will be introducing a new waste industry fund. This includes $190 million of government spending on “new recycling infrastructure” and additional funding from states and the waste industry, totalling $600 million to improve Australia’s recycling industry.[15]

As we strive towards a more circular economy, we must ensure we don’t disregard the materials already circulating. There is a lot of room for improvement within our recycling industry, and with a focus on long term sustainable solutions, we can move towards a more sustainable future.


[1] Legislative Council Environment and Planning Committee. Inquiry into recycling and waste management. Parliament of Victoria. November 2019.

[2] Downes, Jenni. “China’s recycling ‘ban’ throws Australia into a very messy waste crisis.” The Conversation, April 17, 2018.’s,above%20China’s%200.5%25%20acceptable%20threshold.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Towie, Narelle. “One year on: where is Australia’s recycling going now?” The Guardian, January 29, 2019.

[5] Legislative Council Environment and Planning Committee. Inquiry into recycling.

[6] Rizmal, Zalika. “Melbourne councils send recyclable waste to landfill after EPA shuts down Coolaroo plant.” ABC News, February 18, 2019.

[7] Legislative Council Environment and Planning Committee. Inquiry into recycling.

[8] “Melbourne councils.”

[9] City of Booroondara. Budget 2018-19. 2018.

[10] “Melbourne councils.”

[11] City of Booroondara. Draft Revised Council Plan 2017-21 and Proposed Budget 2018-19. 2018.

[12] “Melbourne councils.”

[13] Legislative Council Environment and Planning Committee. Inquiry into recycling.

[14] “Research, Development and Demonstration grants” Accessed August 24, 2020.

[15] Morton, Adam. “Australia’s recycling crisis: is the government’s $190m on new infrastructure worth it?” The Guardian, July 26, 2020.,Australia’s%20recycling%20crisis%3A%20is%20the%20government’s%20%24190,on%20new%20infrastructure%20worth%20it%3F&text=It%20followed%20the%20environment%20minister,and%20glass%20waste%20from%20landfill.


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